Modern times have led to modern problems, such as the proper disposal of the massive amounts of commercial and household waste that accompanies prosperity. A “zero-waste” movement has arisen to revive practices that were once used by generations of humanity: reuse, recycle, and repurpose almost everything for as long as possible. In Japan, the town of Kamikatsu on the island of Shikoku has taken the lead in pursuing the goal of zero waste, which means very little household waste—less than 20%—goes to a landfill or is incinerated. The bulk of unwanted items from the town’s 1,500 people are now repurposed in some way; the town has been so successful that people now come to visit to learn about its zero-waste practices.
More Prosperity, More Waste
The Japanese economy developed rapidly from 1955 to 1972 through what is often described as "mass production, mass consumption, and mass disposal.” As part of this period of strong economic growth, the amount of waste the nation generated also continued to increase, as did the acreage taken up by landfills.
Today, Japan’s 1,661 landfills are inexorably filling up, and if Japan’s businesses and homes continue to generate forty million tons of general waste a year, these landfills will be filled to capacity around 2038, according to Nippon.com, using data from Japan’s Ministry of the Environment’s Survey on Disposal of General Waste.
Incineration cannot solve the waste problem because it produces mountains of ash that must be deposited in a landfill.
Moreover, packaging waste—which accounts for 60% of general waste by volume and 20% by weight in Japan—carries its own problems for disposal. Packaging waste includes plastics, films, and other durable materials used to encase products, single-serve foods, or family-size foods, like PET containers for water, juice, and soft drinks. Most of this packaging waste ends up in landfills because when plastics are burned, they release gases and other hazardous emissions.
Taking Legislative Action
In 1995, the Japanese government enacted the Containers and Packaging Recycling Act (CPR) to guide people on how to handle waste generated from households. This system was partially enforced in 1997, fully enforced in 2000, and updated in 2006.
The Containers and Packaging Recycling Act, officially “the Law for Promotion of Sorted Collection and Recycling of Containers and Packaging,” aims to recycle product containers and packaging discarded from households. Recyclable items include glass bottles, PET bottles, paper boxes, film bags for snacks, and plastic bags.
Previously, municipalities were solely responsible for the entire procedure; however, the CPR sets out the roles for various parties:
Consumers are responsible for sorting waste according to the rules set by the municipality. This will result in good quality waste that is easy to recycle and can be reused as a resource. Additionally, consumers are also expected to try to reduce waste by bringing their own bags (not using extra plastic bags), choosing products with simpler packaging, and actively using returnable containers.
Municipalities are to collect sorted waste from households and deliver it to recycling businesses. In addition, municipalities promote thorough sorting and reduction of waste in the community.
Businesses are responsible for recycling the containers and packaging they use, manufacture, or import in their business. In practice, they can outsource this to a designated company under the CPR. In addition to recycling, businesses must also make an effort to reduce waste containers and packaging by, for example, making containers and packaging thinner and lighter, selling them by weight, and charging for plastic bags.
Only about 20% of municipalities were engaged in the sorting of PET bottles in 1997, but by 2006, almost all municipalities were doing it once additional laws for the CPR were implemented.
Other enacted laws include the Home Appliance Recycling Act (1998), Food Recycling Act (2000), Construction Recycling Act (2000), Automobile Recycling Act (2002), and Small Home Appliance Recycling Act (2012). These laws spell out producer and consumer responsibilities for proper recycling of products.
The results of these new initiatives have been promising. More municipalities are participating, and the amount of sorted waste that is collected is increasing. For example, only about 20% of municipalities were engaged in the sorting of PET bottles in 1997, but by 2006, almost all municipalities were doing it.
Moreover, these laws have increased people’s awareness of recycling. In 1995, only about 10% of households recycled their waste. Ten years later, this rate almost doubled, to 19%, and by 2012, it was almost 21%, according to Waste Atlas. Correspondingly, the final disposal of general waste collections from households has dropped from approximately thirteen million tons in 1996, to seven million tons in 2005, and 4.6 million tons in 2012, according to the Ministry of Environment’s 2014 publication, “History and Current State of Waste Management in Japan.”
Kamikatsu as a Model Town
Kamikatsu is located on the southwest island of Shikoku in the prefecture of Tokushima. Kamikatsu’s population does not reach 1,500, and more than half of residents are 65 years old or older. About 90% of the land is either mountains or forests. These figures may make Kamikatsu sound like a quiet, countryside town, but it has become quite well known among Japanese people—and others in the world who are interested in “zero-waste” practices.
Before the emergence of the zero-waste movement, Kamikatsu was known for its “happa,” or leaf, business. Japanese cuisine often uses seasonal leaves, called “tsuma,” as garnishes or decorative elements. For example, on a sashimi plate, leaves are placed between the slices of raw fish. These leaves not only beautify the dish, but they also keep the food fresh (e.g., separating different types of fish). Many elderly Kamikatsu residents are involved in this business to grow and collect seasonal leaves. They found “ikigai” (meaning in life) in their work, and it is believed that having purpose in life improves their health.
In 2003, the Kamikatsu municipality issued a bold declaration—that they would achieve “zero waste” by 2020. The purpose of this declaration was to pass clean air, water, and land on to children. The declaration highlighted three key items: (1) educating people about how to keep the Earth clean, (2) doing our best not to need incineration and landfill disposal by recycling waste, and (3) networking with peers who engage in environmental conservation around the world.
What stood out in this declaration was that people were placed at the center of this movement. The Japanese words used in the first point do not readily translate to English, but “hito zukuri” means “creation of people” [who do not make the earth unclean].
While government policies focus on tangible, often external issues (e.g., new resources provided, behaviors required), Kamikatsu’s declaration focused on people’s mindset and behavior, hence their culture. Since Kamikatsu already had deep, nature-friendly attitudes, the 2003 zero-waste declaration was well-received and converted into action with relative smoothness.
Lessons to Learn
Kamikatsu, which was recycling 81% of its refuse in 2016, according to Nippon.com, has been an inspiration to many other communities in Japan and beyond. The “big things” that Kamikatsu has been doing do not rely on big things: Their great achievements are the result of many people’s relatively small but consistent efforts.
For instance, in the 1990s, when the town confirmed that raw food waste was a large part (almost a third) of its waste stream, leaders collaborated on a recycling plan to help residents efficiently compost it. The town decided to offer financial assistance for its residents to purchase in-home processors; today, almost all of Kamikatsu’s raw food is composted locally.
With the passage of CPR, the town worked to respond, finding businesses to recycle various materials, and setting up recycling programs for metal, plastics, paper, glass, rubber and many more items. Today, the residents sort household waste into thirteen major categories and then forty-five subcategories.
Some materials, like paper and metal, can be sold, which helps defray Kamikatsu’s costs for landfill or incineration disposal for the things it cannot recycle, such as used diapers and feminine products. Other items that are used but still have value in homes or businesses are made available—people can drop off usable items and take other items as they like.
In this way, Kamikatsu says it has managed to recycle more than 80% of its refuse, according to the Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center.
Changing the Culture
The enormous scale of environmental issues may be overwhelming. Sustainable and effective changes may not happen if people’s hearts are not moved to implement them, so changes in policy that do not alter people’s opinions may not be enough.
But the example of the Kamikatsu people may prove otherwise.
Recognizing that education and networking are important to create a positive attitude and culture around recycling, Kamikatsu leaders sought to implement it in their policies.
First of all, the “mottainai” spirit is clearly relevant to their recycling and waste management. The word, “mottainai,” (roughly translated as “wasteful”) started to receive global attention since it was used by Wangari Muta Maathai, a Kenyan environmental activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. “Mottainai” is used to describe something that has not performed its full value. Its simplest meaning is "What a waste!" and it has undertones of regret or guilt or sorrow. For example, throwing away a strawberry after taking a small bite on the top may be called “mottainai.” The word can also be applied to people. For example, an athlete with great potential who is performing at a mediocre level can also be described as “mottainai.”
Another cultural virtue is the idea that “a small step taken consistently by many for a prolonged time can create a significant impact,” also known as “many a little makes a mickle (a lot).” Indeed, this proverb is used in many cultures. But it is particularly strong in Japanese culture—especially among its thrifty and resourceful elderly—and, paired with the spirit of “mottainai” and appreciating the value of little things, Japan’s towns are well-suited to successful recycling and waste management in Japan.
*Yasuhiro Kotera, Ph.D. is Associate Professor for Mental Health at the University of Nottingham and Accredited Psychotherapist for the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy. He explores mental health recovery and cultures, focusing on compassion.